or Act of War? - The Media, 9-11, and Iraq
Kenneth Mentor J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
presentation was prepared for the
Annual Meetings of the American Society of Criminology
Chicago, November 2002
attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon can be defined
as criminal acts. These events can also be defined as acts of
war. The media and the White House framed their
preferred, and shared, definition of events very early in the
process of understanding and responding to 9/11. As we know,
state response differs depending on how events are defined. In
fact, the process of definition is used to prepare the public
for a particular response. This paper examines the media's
role in defining 9/11 and the reaction to the attacks.
Rhetoric, symbolism, limiting of dissent and narrowing of
issues are discussed. The media has repeated similar processes
as they encourage support of, and preparation for, war against
Iraq. Examples of the media role in regarding to 9/11 and Iraq
are used to illustrate the limitations of mainstream media.
This presentation concluded with a list of website that
present alternate views.
any measure, the events of September 11, 2001, were a terrible
tragedy. This tragedy required an official response from the
United States. This response could have taken many forms. One
year after 9/11 we are again being asked to consider a response
to the situation in Iraq. Again, the response of the United
States can take many forms.
reluctant to follow the administration's lead in blurring these
two events, this presentation discusses each event and examines
the media's role in defining the situations and potential
responses. As we know, the United States began a "war on terror"
following 9/11. It appears that "war" will also be the response
in Iraq. Mainstream media seldom questions whether war is an
appropriate response. In fact, mainstream media often provides
crucial assistance in the government's effort to convince the
American people that war is the best, and in fact the only,
presentation includes three sections. First, we examine the
media's role regarding 9/11. Next the media's role regarding the
possible war with Iraq is discussed. Finally, links to
alternative media sources are included. The extensive list of
links is include in the hope that you will look through the
websites as you seek alternative sources for information, news,
The Media and 9/11
9/11 a crime or act of war? Hijacking has always been treated as
a crime. An obvious difference is that this time, the hijacking
ended with the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of
the Pentagon. Instead of a hijacking we saw commercial airlines
used as missile that were used to attack buildings. Similarly,
Timothy McVeigh used a van loaded with explosives to attack a
building in Oklahoma City. This was treated as a crime.
commercial airlines have been used in terrorist acts directed
against the United State. Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie
Scotland. We now know that the act was carried out by men who
were working with the blessing of the Libyan government. Pan Am
103 was not treated as an act of war. This event was defined as
an international crime. The men responsible are now in prison
and the Libyan government has admitted their role and has
expressed a willingness to pay damages to the families of those
killed in Flight 103.
also know that the World Trade Center was attacked in 1993. This
attack was treated as crime. Ten militant Islamists, though to
have ties to Al-Qaeda, were found guilty of conspiracy.
Wayne Elliott, former Chief of the U.S. Army's International Law
Division of the Judge Advocate General School, sums up the
crimes associated with the 9/11 attacks: ?Of course, U.S.
domestic law prohibits what happened. But, even under
international law and the law of war, these acts would be
prohibited. The initial seizure of the plane would be a
violation of the hijacking laws and treaties; holding the people
on those planes amounted to taking hostages; crashing the plane
into civilian targets was a war crime. And, if this was simply
the first (or merely the latest) act of war it amounted to an
unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation.? Click this link for
the full story:
law provides many alternatives when the aggrieved party seeks to
control rouge states, organizations, or individuals. The United
States ignored international law by using its military to
retaliate. Why, in this case, did the United States reject the
option of working through the legal system to bring the
surviving perpetrators to justice? Why did we abandon the
precedent we had followed regarding various hijackings, Pan Am
103, McVeigh, and a previous attack on the World Trade Center?
How was this done with virtually no criticism from mainstream
humanitarian law reflects the lessons of the Holocaust and World
War II. This law has been codified in the Geneva Conventions and
other universally accepted treaties. The events of 9/11 were so
far beyond the imagination of those who wrote these laws that it
is safe to assume that these laws were not written to address
the events of 9/11. In effect, it is very difficult to define
9/11 by reference to international humanitarian law. If we
accept the media and government interpretation of events the
attacks were not carried out by the state but by an organization
that has never claimed responsibility for the acts. Click this
link for more on this issue:
inadequate to define these events, international law remains
important in our efforts to resolve international disputes
without violations of accepted humanitarian principles. It would
be very difficult to make a case that since the events of 9/11
were hard to define that the Bush Administration suddenly had
the right to ignore humanitarian laws that clearly apply to the
behavior of the United States. The administration never needed
to worry about making this argument since questions were never
raised in a manner that was loud and clear enough that they
could not be ignored.
wars have been waged by nation-states. The objective of war has
been to control other nation-states or to seize control and/or
protect a geographic area. In this case the United States
directed the energies of the military to stop an organization.
The initial stated objective was to hunt down and kill members
of this organization without regard to international
borders. In effect, the administration rushed into a war
with no clear enemy. Why? We may never know the true motivation.
Vengeance, oil and political strategery (to us a Bushism) are
the top candidates but without an open debate of the issues,
moderated by a free and unfiltered press, it will be difficult
to know the true motivations.
Media Coverage by the Numbers
Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe search of CNN transcripts between
9/11/2001 and 10/10/2001, using "world trade" and "attack"
together as search terms, yields 545 stories.
that there are some methodological issues regarding this search.
As we know, on 9/11 and the days immediately following the
attacks, CNN and all other news media were covering this story
24 hours a day. The number of stories is well below what we
would expect so it is clear that either CNN doesn't transcribe
every story or that Lexis-Nexis does not provide full access to
every transcript. In addition, several stories run at multiple
times throughout the day yet are only counted once during a
search of transcripts. Also, this search has been run on several
occasions with different results. It is not clear why the same
search would yield different results.
Of the 545 stories:
aired on September 11, 2001
375 included the word "war"
of these 375 stories, 13 aired on 9/11
114 included the word "peace"
66 included the word "trial"
of these 66 stories, None aired on 9/11
52 contained the phrase "act of war"
129 included the word "crime"
of these 129 stories, 4 were aired on 9/11
9 contained the phrase "criminal act"
8 of these 9 also included "war"
13 contained the phrase "international law"
12 of these 13 also included "war"
the first use of "international law" was on 9/16
48 included the term "pearl harbor"
Behind the Numbers
attempt was made to find articles that debated whether to define
the 9/11 events as "act of war" or "criminal act." A seach of
the initial 545 articles yielded 116 that used the terms "war"
OR "act of war" AND "crime" OR "criminal act." Each of these
transcripts was reviewed.
first story that used this combination of word aired at 2:30 on
9/11. By this time CNN had added the "America Under Attack"
banner that many of us remember. The theme of their coverage was
already established. The following excerpt indicates that CNN
reporters had started to consider how the United States would
Do you think there should be any retaliation on the part of
the United States for what happened here in this country, both
in New York, Washington and other places?
PATAKI: The first step right now is to make sure we do
everything to help those people who need our support, whether
they're injured or still trapped in buildings. The second
thing is to make sure, at the same time, we're providing the
maximum security against possible additional incidents.
But clearly, this is an attack upon America, it's an attack
upon our freedom and our way of life, and we must retaliate
and go after those who perpetuated this heinous crime
against the people of America.
QUESTION: This has been compared to Pearl Harbor, do you
consider this to be an act of war?
GIULIANI: This is a vicious, unprovoked, horrible attack on
innocent men, women and children. It's one of the most heinous
acts, certainly in world history. And as the governor said and
I said to the president, we fully and completely support him
in any action that he has to take in order to make an example
of the people who are responsible for this.
QUESTION: Is it an act of war in your mind?
GIULIANI: I don't know that I want to use those words. I think
the president is the one that has to respond. And I think what
he has to know is that all of us in New York support him and
support him completely in the efforts that he's going to have
to make over the next couple of days, week, to make a point
that people can't do this. You can't attack innocent men,
women and children. And ultimately, I'm totally confident that
American democracy and the American rule of law will prevail,
and the people of New York are going to help demonstrate that
over the next couple of days.
Pataki initially referred to the events as a heinous crime. The
reporter immediately made a Pearl Harbor reference and asked
whether this was an act of war. Mayor Guliani is reluctant to
endorse those terms. He talks about a "vicious, unprovoked,
horrible attack" on innocents. In response, the reporter again
attempts to get someone to say this was an act of war. Guiliana
again refuses to take the bait, instead he expressed his belief
in "democracy and the American rule of law."
Pearl Harbor theme was repeated many times over the next few
weeks. The only other reference to Pearl Harbor on 9/11 was made
by James Kallstrom, former Assistant Director of the FBI. As
with the previous example, the reporter initiated the discussion
of an "act of war." Kallstrom took the bait.
I think it's clearly an act of war. I think it's -- in many
ways, it's a different time, but it's everything that Pearl
Harbor was and more. It just puts an exclamation
point next to this dangerous world we live in. And the
inability to appease people that are this demented with
rhetoric, it's -- hasn't worked, it's not going to work.
We can see what happened today. All peace-loving people of the
world, all people that believe in democracy and freedom, need
to stand against this. Any country that harbors or aids this
type of activity anywhere in the world needs to declare which
side they're on and we need to seriously do something about
this. And I believe we will.
his emotional response Mr. Kallstrom also introduces several
themes that will be repeated many times. First, he labels the
attackers as "demented." Words such as "cowardly" are "sick"
were also used to define the attackers. Remember that George W.
Bush called these people, and those who support them, "evil
doers" and "enemies of peace." Kallstrom also relies on this
imagery as he discusses "peace-loving people" who need to take a
stand. Introducing another key theme, Kallstrom suggests that
all countries need to "decide which side they're on." The good
vs. evil dichotomy is now fortified with the suggestion that
everyone must choose sides. The "with us or against us" theme
became very prevalent and served to quiet many dissenting
theme is introduced as Kallstrom refers to what he sees as a
failure of "rhetoric." He suggests that this hasn't worked and
will never work. Kallstrom is clearly not interested in
negotiation. Remember that these comments were made within
hours of the attacks. There is no evidence that the government
had started to form a response. However, the media had clearly
decided on a path of action.
major theme that was introduced within hours of the attacks was
that Americans may need to give up some liberties in return for
security. In an interview with CNN's Judy Woodruff we heard from
Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff. Although he
claimed to be and advocate of individual liberties, Haig offered
simple facts are that national leadership has to establish
that terrorism is an illegal act of such magnitude now that it
overwhelms the issues of social justice which cause us to
quibble, and restrain us at times when a crime
of this nature has been executed.
we know, the events of 9/11 have resulted in a loss of civil
liberties that may be unparalleled in the history of this
country. Rhetoric supporting this loss of liberty began within
hours of the attacks.
of whether the attacks constituted a crime or act of war had not
seriously started on the day of the attacks. If anything, it
appeared that politicians had not yet been provided with
"talking points" that are often provided to politicians in a
position to alter the direction of debate. The following
exchange includes Dick Armey, the House Majority leader.
RICHARD ARMEY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: We had the bipartisan
leadership of both the House and Senate. We were of course --
obviously, like everybody in America -- seeking information,
trying to understand exactly what's happening. Where is it
coming from? Who's responsible, and how do we respond?
Measuring the threat to the nation, and preparing ourselves to
bring the members of Congress back to work at the appropriate
time under the right circumstances and make the point that I
You may scar democracy, but you don't shut it down. We will be
back to work tomorrow. We think this is a horrible criminal
act. It is just inhumane. It's insane. And the
American House and Senate, the Congress of this nation, as the
president of this nation will address that tonight. We will
address the nation's business this week, and we will continue
the process of finding the people who are responsible and
bringing them to justice.
KARL: Now, I understand that at least four times during the
day the vice president briefed those leaders -- those members
of the leadership that were in that room at that classified
location. What did you learn about that fourth plane? The
plane that landed in Western Pennsylvania?
ARMEY: Well we learned some things about that. At this point
the information is classified. It is clear that we to have had
a good investigation going forward. We are gathering
information, there is a (AUDIO GAP) confidentiality on what we
know, but we do know that this is a serious premeditated crime,
and I can say without any doubt or hesitation it's an
international crime. And we will be able to
find the people responsible. And America, I believe -- with
the cooperation of all civilized nations -- will bring these
people to justice.
only is he talking about the attack as a criminal act, in fact
an international crime, he suggests that we work with civilized
nations to bring these people to justice. This was the first,
and only, time Armey talked about the attacks as a crime. As we
see in the following excerpt, by 9/16 Armey had changed his
Congressman Armey, based on what you're
hearing, tell the American public right now and the people
around the world watching this program what kind of strike,
what kind of military action they should be prepared to
observe from the United States?
ARMEY: Well, they might be prepared to not
observe it at all in the sense that we all watched Desert
Basically, what you have is these snakes are in their holes
scattered around the world, plotting and scheming. We've got
to find where they are, and we've got to kill them before they
get out of their holes. And that's not necessarily going to be
something that the American people are going to see as it
happens or hear a great deal about it in any kind of detail
before it happens. It is something that has to be carried out
in the same way they carry out their activities -- behind
quiet doors and, in a sense, under the cloak of secrecy. We
have to do the same. You've got to use their tactics to catch
BLITZER: But, Congressman Armey, should the
American public be prepared for a U.S. military invasion of
Afghanistan where the Taliban regime harbors, protects, Osama
bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, as we heard from Secretary
of State Colin Powell?
ARMEY: I believe that will depend a great
deal on the Taliban and how they react. If they react with
defiance and arrogance; if they say not only will we harbor
these people, we will foster these activities, they could be
calling that wrath very clearly and very specifically upon
September 12 CNN was reporting that "people see this as far more
than a crime or an isolated terrorist
incident. That came through loud and clear in four different
polls." CNN reported that in their own poll "86 percent of
Americans described yesterday's attack as an act of war
against the United States." By this time George Bush, John
Ashcroft, Colin Powell, Dick Gephardt and others had spoken to
the American people and referred to the attacks as an act of
war. Other than a brief discussion between two reporters, who
quickly discounted the idea of anything but a military response,
we had reached the end of the second day with no discussion of
any response other than war.
commentators stated that it was clear that we were at war
although they acknowledged that we did not know who would be the
target of this war. The answer to this question first appeared
on September 13. Two of the 545 stories included in the initial
dataset refered to a "war against terrorism." The media also
began to focus on Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan.
September 14 CNN was presenting a variety of "talking heads" who
discussed war strategy. The pentagon had asked for the
mobilization of 50,000 troops. CNN began to present the idea of
reinstating the draft. As in other cases where a new topic was
introduced, the question first appeared on a CNN poll. The media
was following a pattern in which they identified the potential
issues, included these issues in a poll, and then used the
results of the poll to introduce the issue to the viewers. In
addition to introducing the idea of a draft, Wolf Blitzer
introduced another theme that was prevalent in subsequent
coverage of 9/11 as he talked about the united Congress.
Levin, another question we asked in our CNN/"Time" Magazine
poll was this. Should the U.S. reinstate the military draft if
a ground war is necessary to fight this war
against terror? 66 percent favor it, 28 percent oppose it. Do
you think it will be necessary to go back to a draft?
LEVIN: If it is, we should do it. We should not be reluctant
to use all of the forces at our command, including our citizen
armies and including the draft. So the Reserves today are
going to be called up, up to 50,000 of them. Those are our
citizen soldiers. And the draft if it's necessary to prevail,
I vote for it absolutely.
This is December 8, 1941. But this time, it's a war
against terrorism. But the people here are so determined. We
have that absolutely unified determination. So yes, if we need
the draft in order to carry out a successful war,
I would vote for it. Again I emphasize, we need a strong
coalition. And I believe we're going to be able to put it
together, because that's important in terms of success.
We need the time to prepare for this effort. We need the time
to prevail because we must prevail. And part of that success
is going to be achieved because I believe so many nations,
some of whom have never participated with us, this time will
join against the common scourge of terrorism.
BLITZER: And we only have a few seconds left. Senator Warner,
in the many years you've been in Congress in Washington,
you're a Republican. Senator Levin is Democrat. Have you ever
seen the U.S. Congress as united as it is right now?
WARNER: No, very clearly this is evidence of it. 10 years ago,
I helped draft the resolution that George Bush, then
president, won the Gulf War with our
coalition allies. It was three days and three nights of
ferocious debate on the Senate floor and it prevailed by only
This one is 100 votes. What clear evidence. Senator Levin and
I worked on the drafting with our leadership of this. What
clear evidence of a unity in the Congress and the Congress
speak for the people of the United States.
in the day of September 14 CNN changed the banner that appeared
on the screen throughout the day. "America Under Attack" became
"America's New War." The theme of their coverage was changing.
September 15 Congress passed a resolution authorizing the
President to use all necessary and appropriate force to
The Media and Iraq
Americans are troubled by the suggestion that the United States
will engage in a unilateral first-strike to prevent an event
that the administration believes may occur in the future. Why
would we allow such an extreme departure from decades of foreign
policy? Why does this significant and far-reaching policy change
without public debate? For more information see:
mentioned above, the United States had a history of treating
terror incidents are criminal acts rather than acts of war. This
changed with 9/11 as the Bush Administration abandoned the
precedent established through our reaction to previous terror
attacks. How was this done with virtually no criticism.
Similarly, the Bush Administration now believes we are
authorized to use pre-emptive strikes against any country that
we believe could pose a risk in the future. How is this major
policy shift accomplished with no criticism?
with 9/11, mainstream media has played a major role in the Bush
administration's efforts to ?sell? the war with Iraq. Here are a
few points that illustrate the problem. These points apply to
the events of 9/11 nearly as well as they apply to an effort to
critically evaluate the media's role regarding the possibility
of war with Iraq.
is Imminent: The prevailing view found in mainstream media
is that a war with Iraq is imminent. For example, MSNBC
aired a nightly program called ?Countdown to Iraq? (the title
has now been changed to "Countdown: Iraq"). Why is the title a
statement rather than a question? Many Americans continue to
believe there is still a chance to stop this war.
Dissent: The mainstream media hides dissent. Over 100,000
anti-war protesters marched in Washington on October 26, 2002.
Some organizations report the number as high as 200,000. Similar
protests took place all over the world. The mainstream media
seemed reluctant to reports these protests. When they did, they
greatly underestimate the number of protesters and focused on
the organizer's disappointment about the lack of protest. Most
importantly, mainstream media reports fail to provide
information that would be helpful in understanding the positions
of the protesters. The media seems to believe that it is
sufficient to say that some people disagree with the
administration - the subtext is that such disagreement is
Sells: Ratings for CNN, MSNBC, and network news programs
are never higher than for war and similar events. Never forget
that the mainstream media is in the business of selling.
Unfortunately, advertisers that do not flinch at being
associated with war footage do not want to be associated with
something as unpatriotic as protest.
Vision: News events take on a life of their own. We saw
this as the media became obsessed with a sniper who was randomly
shooting people in the Washington D.C. area. Now that the sniper
has been caught we can now go back to ?normal.? The media does
not question the fact that ?normal? is a situation in which
dozens of people are killed by guns every day. A theme was
established for this story and the media will stick with the
theme - whether it is logical or not.
is Clean: Many of us remember the Vietnam conflict and
earlier wars. War is not clean. However, the media amazes and
entertains us with ?smart bombs? that surgically remove the
enemy with a minimum of ?collateral damage.? The media has
failed to inform us that current war plans involve a massive
invasion of Iraq. Up to 500,000 soldiers are expected to invade
Baghdad, seize control, and chase the enemy to the borders and
beyond. How many body bags will result? Why isn?t this question
Humans are Worth More than Others: We know that many
deaths will occur. We might even blow up a wedding, as we did in
Afghanistan. The tone of media coverage would lead one to
believe that since these are not Americans, it really doesn?t
matter. How will we react when the body bags contain American
Soldiers are Safe: The government and mainstream media
would have us believe that the biggest risk to our soldiers is
?friendly fire.? In contrast, international news sources
reported Afghanistan incidents that resulted in the death of 30
or more American soldiers. Did these events not occur, or did
the mainstream media hide the facts?
= Iraq: The government and mainstream media has focused on
one man, Saddam Hussein. The mainstream media largely ignores
the other 22 million Iraqis, many of whom are starving to death
as a result of our efforts to stop one man. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of our embargo.
Amazingly, the Bush administration actually believes that the
people of Iraq will rise in support of our efforts once we
What Do We Do about this Bias?
solution, on an individual level at least, is to seek out
alternative media. And you will need to look for it. Alternative
media will not be delivered to your house in the morning paper
and will not be displayed on your television. Mainstream media
is ?pushed? to the public every minute. Alternative views are
heard and read only when someone takes the initiative to find
alternate news and views.
encourage each of you to take a few minutes every day, how about
taking as much time as it takes to read the newspaper, and seek
alternative views. The balance is out there. You just have to
take the time to find it.
out against mainstream media bias. Several organizations will
help you do this and it works. For example, the Washington Post
recently suggested that Bush would have won the election if a
recount had been allowed. As we know, this is not true. A letter
and phone campaign forced the Post to retract their statement
and issue a correction. Efforts to keep the media honest have
the potential to change the media. The conservatives clearly
agree and are engaged in similar campaigns to stop what they
view as "liberal media."
teach several policy related courses. I ask my students to think
through policy choices and try to imagine the eventual
consequences of a particular policy choice. I believe we are
smart enough to think through a problem and make some
predictions about the end result of our choices.
even give the government credit for being able to think through
a problem in such a manner. Unfortunately, there is no
indication that this administration is willing to act in ways
that benefit all people. They fully realize the negative impacts
of their policies, and examine who will gain and lose, before
acting in ways that benefit certain interests. The people
pulling Bush?s strings are frighteningly good at what they do.
given all the information, you are smart enough to know the
truth. But do not expect to be given this information. You will
have to find it. After reviewing alternative sources for
information you will find that you are becoming a more critical,
and intelligent, consumer of mainstream media. Seek the truth
and act on your convictions.
Alternative Media on the Internet
following links include alternative media, world media and
political sites. The sites include news, opinion, parody and
humor. Many of the sites are critical of George W. Bush and his
administration. Other sites specifically address 9/11 or Iraq. I
encourage you to look through these websites and to seek
alternative sources for information, news, and views.
Alternative Media Watch -
Friends Service Committee -
for a Better World -
for Investigative Reporting - http://www.muckraker.org/
Chomsky archive -
Citizens for Legitimate
Common Dreams -
of War Project -
Democracy Now -
FAIR: Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting -
Media Views -
Foreign Policy in Focus -
Free Speech Radio News -
Free Speech TV -
Guerrilla News Network -
Edward Herman -
IMC: Independent Media Center
IMC New Mexico -
for Policy Studies - http://www.ips-dc.org/
for Public Accuracy -
These Times -
Iraq Journal -
Iraq Peace Team -
and Peace Institute - http://www.mediapeace.org/
Workers Against War -
in Our Name -
World - http://www.oneworld.net/
Onion - http://www.theonion.com/
Radio - http://www.pacifica.org/
Media Project -
Review - http://www.prorev.com/
Without Borders - http://www.rsf.org/
11 Web Community -
The War Coalition -
Modern World -
for Peace -
Reader - http://www.utne.com/
in the Wilderness -
for Change -
Howard Zinn -
Chomsky archive -